"Religion and Women" by NY Times Columist Nicholas D. Krisof

Religions derive their power and popularity in part from the ethical compass they offer. So why do so many faiths help perpetuate something that most of us regard as profoundly unethical: the oppression of women?

It is not that warlords in Congo cite Scripture to justify their mass rapes (although the last warlord I met there called himself a pastor and wore a button reading “rebels for Christ”). It’s not that brides are burned in India as part of a Hindu ritual. And there’s no verse in the Koran that instructs Afghan thugs to throw acid in the faces of girls who dare to go to school.

Yet these kinds of abuses — along with more banal injustices, like slapping a girlfriend or paying women less for their work — arise out of a social context in which women are, often, second-class citizens. That’s a context that religions have helped shape, and not pushed hard to change.

“Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths, creating an environment in which violations against women are justified,” former President Jimmy Carter noted in a speech last month to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Australia.

“The belief that women are inferior human beings in the eyes of God,” Mr. Carter continued, “gives excuses to the brutal husband who beats his wife, the soldier who rapes a woman, the employer who has a lower pay scale for women employees, or parents who decide to abort a female embryo.”

Mr. Carter, who sees religion as one of the “basic causes of the violation of women’s rights,” is a member of The Elders, a small council of retired leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela. The Elders are focusing on the role of religion in oppressing women, and they have issued a joint statement calling on religious leaders to “change all discriminatory practices within their own religions and traditions.”

The Elders are neither irreligious nor rabble-rousers. They include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and they begin their meetings with a moment for silent prayer.

“The Elders are not attacking religion as such,” noted Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and United Nations high commissioner for human rights. But she added, “We all recognized that if there’s one overarching issue for women it’s the way that religion can be manipulated to subjugate women.”

There is of course plenty of fodder, in both the Koran and the Bible, for those who seek a theology of discrimination.

The New Testament quotes St. Paul (I Timothy 2) as saying that women “must be silent.” Deuteronomy declares that if a woman does not bleed on her wedding night, “the men of her town shall stone her to death.” An Orthodox Jewish prayer thanks God, “who hast not made me a woman.” The Koran stipulates that a woman shall inherit less than a man, and that a woman’s testimony counts for half a man’s.

In fairness, many scholars believe that Paul did not in fact write the passages calling on women to be silent. And Islam started out as socially progressive for women — banning female infanticide and limiting polygamy — but did not continue to advance.

But religious leaders sanctified existing social structures, instead of pushing for justice. In Africa, it would help enormously if religious figures spoke up for widows disenfranchised by unjust inheritance traditions — or for rape victims, or for schoolgirls facing sexual demands from their teachers. Instead, in Uganda, the influence of conservative Christians is found in a grotesque push to execute gays.

Yet paradoxically, the churches in Africa that have done the most to empower women have been conservative ones led by evangelicals and especially Pentecostals. In particular, Pentecostals encourage women to take leadership roles, and for many women this is the first time they have been trusted with authority and found their opinions respected. In rural Africa, Pentecostal churches are becoming a significant force to emancipate women.

That’s a glimmer of hope that reminds us that while religion is part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution. The Dalai Lama has taken that step and calls himself a feminist.

Another excellent precedent is slavery. Each of the Abrahamic faiths accepted slavery. Muhammad owned slaves, and St. Paul seems to have condoned slavery. Yet the pioneers of the abolitionist movement were Quakers and evangelicals like William Wilberforce. People of faith ultimately worked ferociously to overthrow an oppressive institution that churches had previously condoned.

Today, when religious institutions exclude women from their hierarchies and rituals, the inevitable implication is that females are inferior. The Elders are right that religious groups should stand up for a simple ethical principle: any person’s human rights should be sacred, and not depend on something as earthly as their genitals.

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I couldn't agree more. My wife once said to me that I wouldn't like being a woman. Because of how women are treated by men in a male dominated society fostered by Christian views stemming from Adam as the head of the human race, and Paul's statements in his letters, no I would not. But I want this to change and I have set my goal to do as much as possible to change this for women everywhere by tearing down the faith supports to male dominance in our Christian dominated society.

Don't look now, but here come the defenders of the faith. They'll say Christianity improved the lot of women in the world. They'll say that if men treated women the way the Bible says that it would solve the problem. They'll say Jesus was an egalitarian. They'll say we simply misunderstand Paul. Madeline Flannagan will even say she wants to be treated like the Bible says. Other defenders will say that this is their punishment from the Edenic Fall in the Garden. They'll say women need a good strong headship, that they are weak.

Yeah, right. In the meantime let's ask all of these male defenders if they would like to be treated as women are in this male dominated society fostered by the Christian faith. That's where the rubber meets the road. And even if they do, they are deluded.

HT: The Friendly Atheist.

5 comments:

Jer said...

I think it's a mistake to blame Christianity - or even religion in general - for the root cause of gender inequality in the world. Religion is pernicious when it comes to inequality because it is a codified tradition that justifies unequal treatment for others. And unlike other traditions it is specifically held to be immune to the critical thought processes that allow other unfair traditions to be toppled. Which is why religion is the last bastion for sexists, racists, homophobes, and other folks who hold to hate but have no rational reason for their hate - religion says you don't need a rational reason if you can justify it by an appeal to religious tradition (be that Scripture or otherwise).

But the underlying cause of gender inequality in the world is a deeper might makes right attitude that goes beyond any particular religion. I suspect that it came into humanity via natural selection because for most of our history it was something that worked quite well for propagating the species. Though I will say that it seems to be a behavior that is easily justifiable by almost all religions. (And because of how religions work it's also condemnable by almost all of them as well, so the liberal believers of all religions can fall back on "that's not how my religion works" excuses while their conservative co-religionists kick people around.)

Anthony said...

Of course there are lots of reasons in the world why people do terrible things, but just like I said before in referring to Sam Harris. There are lots of softwares out there that people use to justify the cruel and terrible things they do, but religion is, by far, the best form of that software.

If we want to put a stop, globally, to sexism, the deeply held convictions of religion, especially the most influential, should be targetted first and foremost. You plug the biggest hole before taking care of the ancillary leaks.

Philip said...

Religion can never transcend the morals of it's own time, it only takes whatever is considered right/wrong of it's own day and keeps it frozen, resisting changes until it's dragged kicking and screaming to a new era, it'll then sit there dignified and say that it's not against it but support it all along. That's the story of religion and women.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

It is more than this. Religion is a tool, it is used as an instrument in coopting women into agreeing with their own subordination.

I blog about this full time. I do not argue that the Bible is egalitarian, but I also do not believe that people need to reject Christianity completely in order to defend gender equality.

As Kristoff pointed out,

"Yet paradoxically, the churches in Africa that have done the most to empower women have been conservative ones led by evangelicals and especially Pentecostals. In particular, Pentecostals encourage women to take leadership roles, and for many women this is the first time they have been trusted with authority and found their opinions respected. In rural Africa, Pentecostal churches are becoming a significant force to emancipate women."

John, I have 100% appreciation of your commitment to this cause. I believe that it is something that we can collaborate on across faith boundaries, as long as we are honest.

I do my best to be completely honest about both what the Bible does say that is not helpful for women, AND write about how some modern theologians have reinterpreted the Bible in order to resubordinate women.

Tommy Korioth said...

Christianity is worse than those who directly subjugate women. Christianity is the guy standing there, watching, and opposes anyone who tries to stop it. Christianity sanctifies the oppression and subjugation of women.

And,

as Suzanne McCarthy pointed out: (I couldn’t of said it better), “Religion is a tool, it is used as an instrument in coopting women into agreeing with their own subordination.” Which begs the question, is it subjugation if the woman is a willing participant? The answer is yes. Suck it Jesus.